March 25, 2008

Virginia troops keep lines of communication open

By 2nd Lt. David E. Leiva
3rd Battalion 116th Infantry

AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq — The figures are dizzying:

  • 44 Blue Force Tracker systems
  • 29 Movement Tracking Systems
  • 191 Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio Systems
  • 66 Long-Range Mobile Radios
  • 83 Electronic Counter Measure systems
  • 12 Automated Net Control Devices
  • 16 laptop computers

More so than their signature bicycle helmets – a throw back to old leather football headgear – it is the accountability, maintenance and troubleshooting of nearly $9.4 million of communications equipment that has distinguished Staff Sgt. Quinton Quan and Spc. Gregory Gourdeau.

Just weeks after Bravo Company 3rd Battalion 116th Infantry arrived at Al Asad Air Base in Iraq last fall, the pair set the standard for asset tracking, according to Master Sgt. Anthony Mollusky, the head of communications for the 787th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, Bravo’s parent unit.

“A unit in battle will not survive without the ability to communicate,” Mollusky said. “By going above and beyond their required skill set … (Quan and Gourdeau) did more than what was expected of the unit Commo sections.”

It’s not a sexy job, particularly in an infantry company, where glory is defined differently.

But in the behind-the-scenes, unglamorous support world, a high-tech gadget is only as good as it is operable and the Soldiers ‘understanding of how to use it.

“As long as they can talk, they don’t care how we do it, or why we do it, just as long as it works,” said Quan, 47, Bravo’s chief of communications and a resident of Newport News.

Sometimes that meant acting a lot like Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, the commander of the Star Trek USS Enterprise-D and ‘Make it so.’

But making it work also meant learning how it worked, even for Quan and Gourdeau, who while on their second deployment to Iraq, didn’t have much of a background in the different communications systems that Bravo used on the treacherous roads of Iraq.

Most of the company trained on providing convoy security throughout western Iraq, including through the Sunni Triangle and near the border of Syria.

Pre-deployment training on commo, however, was another story. Their unit in the Virginia Army National Guard, Charlie Company 116th Brigade Special Troop Battalion in Hampton, had not been outfitted with the equipment.

The learning curve was steep.

Yet, for nearly eight months, the duo did everything from upgrading the BFT, which uses a Global Positioning System to locate friendly units throughout Iraq, to rewiring 85 combat vehicles by stripping nearly three miles worth of faulty or outdated wiring to teaching Soldiers how to use the different radios.

Staff Sgt. Washington Zambrano, an assistant convoy commander in 1st Platoon, remembered when the pair worked late into the evening putting together the communications for a vehicle on its way to a two-week long mission through Fallujah and Baghdad, both deadly spots in Iraq.

“We needed that vehicle,” Zambrano said. “I was grateful and appreciated what they did in that short period of time.”

The commo section fell under the Headquarters Platoon, and the executive officer, Capt. Andrew Lequick.

Sometimes, he said, it was everything outside the realm of communications that made him marvel at their ingenuity.

From building an office for the intelligence section to remodeling a building housing the commo and medic sections to putting up field nets to shade the Port-o-Johns, the two always were always involved in some undertaking, Lequick said.

Those additional duties included anything that has a wire or electricity running through it, such as electrical sockets. Or, anything completely unrelated.

“Quan was always finding a project to work on,” he said, chuckling. “It wasn’t always something I wanted him working on, but he was always working.”

And when there were errors and no one could make the system worked, sometimes, the answer was pretty obvious.

Said Lequick: “A plethora of problems were fixed by asking three questions: Is the power on? Is it on the right channel? Is the volume on?”

But, again, if there was a wire or electricity running through it, the issue usually fell on Quan and Gourdeau’s lap.

“I’m just here to solve problems even if they aren’t specifically in my field,” smirked Gourdeau, 23, of Virginia Beach. “The most surprising thing is we completed the mission with just the two of us. It was hard.”

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